Miles Davis - Sketches Of Spain- Inside Story 1960

Category: Music

While going through some of my files when I was with CBS/Columbia I came across this media release. These and many like it were sent to various media such as Radio Stations, Critics, Record retailers, historians and so forth.

This 5 page release gives insight as to what really went on during the recording of Miles Davis Sketches Of Spain. At times humorous, and other times very serious with the recording engineer as well as with Gil Evans producer of the album. This is truly a step back in time to 1960 when the recording medium was nothing like today. Many takes to get things right. With todays equipment and techniques this could have been done in far less time, than in 1960.

Here you will experience the angst and joy of Miles Davis, the surrounding musicians, the recording process and what really happen on that day so long ago.

Now The Rest Of The Story:

On a grey November Sunday afternoon, Miles Davis, arranger-conductor Gil Evans and nineteen other musicians were scheduled at Columbia's huge 30th street studios on New York's East Side. They were to record a unique album concept-Spanish themes rescored by Evans and improvised on by Davis, the most influential and intractably individual trumpet player in modern jazz.

The instrumentation was Davis, four trumpets, tuba, three French horns, two trombones, bass, drums, percussion, harp, five woodwinds. Davis and Evans had already colllaborated for Columbia on two brilliantly integrated orchestral albums, Miles Ahead (CL-1041) and Porgy and Bess (CL-1274, CS-8085). Both had sold well, especially the broodingly dramatic intensification of the Gershwin score.

By 2:15 nearly all the musicians had arrived at the studios, which had once been a church, then a brewery, and was now in constant use by Columbia. The majority of the musicians were dressed in sports clothes. The one woman was slender, auburn-haired harpist Janet Putnam. Miles, short and wiry, is somewhat of a stylesetter sartorially as well as musically among the younger jazz musicians and on that afternoon, he wore a green Italian sweater, grey polo shirt, green and red silk scarf and tapered chino pants. He looked, however, as if he'd rather be at home swearing at television, a continuing avocation of his.

Miles moved wearily into the control room. The effects of a recent attack of flu lingered. "I'm breaking up," he said in his croaking hoarse voice. ''I'm breaking into pieces."

The A&R man, Tea Macero, a composer and erstwhile experimental jazz musician, was briskly giving instructions to engineer Fred Plaut and Plaut's assistant, Lou Belak.

The first session had taken place unsuccessfully the previous Tuesday. Miles, even more racked by flu then, hadn't arrived until more than half the date was over, and the three hours had been spent mostly on the orchestra's findding the right tempos for the main piece in the album, Evans' re-arrangement of the middle section of the Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra by the contemporary Spanish composer, Joaquin Rodrigo (Columbia ML-5345). As planned, it would take up one album side.

Miles had first heard the work several months ago on the west coast when a friend gave him the record. "After listening to it for a couple of weeks," Miles said, "I couldn't get it out of my mind. Then when Gil and I decided to do this album, I played him the record and he liked it. As we usually do, we planned the program first by ourselves for about two months. I work out something; he takes it home and works on it some more; and then we figure out how we're going to do it. He can read my mind and I can read his."

Fred Plaut meanwhile was beginning to express firm ideas of his own on the best way to balance the session. Plaut, a Parisian who came to Columbia twenty years ago is witty, conscientious and multi-lingual. He engineers many classical dates, most of the Broadway shows, and a large percentage of the jazz albums. Fred is a superb photographer and candid shots he's taken during Columbia dates have been on exhibition and in magazines.

The balance set by Macero had the trumpets, trombones and regular jazz drums (played by Miles' regular drummer, JimmyCobb)on the right,on the left were woodwinds, harp, and Elvin Jones on various percussion instruments, including tympani, tambourine. and castanets. The French horns, bass and Mileswere in the middle.

Teo started checking out each section of the orchestra to hear if all the microphones were working. Nine microphones had peen set up-one each for brass, harp, wooddwinds, horns, Miles, castanets and percussion; drums, bass, and an opening trio of flute, trombone and trumpet.

"We're going to cross-feed some of the instruments," Teo explained, "to get a true stereo picture."

In the studio,ยท Gil Evans was checking the parts with his characteristically preoccupied look. A lean, graying 47, Gil looks like a gently aging diplomat who collects rare species of ferns on weekends. Though always polite, he is in firm control of his record dates and insists on hearing exactly what he has written. Now while Evans moved to one of the spare pianos at the far end of the studio to play some of the score, Fred Plaut and Tea Macero were debating the placeement of the jazz drums.

"I never put rhythm drums with brass," said Fred. "It's a big mistake having the drums on the right side."

"No," countered Teo, "they'll wash out the woodwinds if,they're on the left,"

"The drums. are very bright," Fred persisted. "And the brasses are bright too," .

''I'd rather not move them," said Teo.

"All right! I give up," and Fred continued checking out the microphones.

Miles had joined Gil at the spare piano and they started discussing Miles' part which spread out, accordion-fashion, over many sheets of manuscript paper. Teo walked out into the studio from the control room, and Plaut turned to his assistant. ''I'm stilI sorry the jazz drums aren't on the other side."

As each section of the orchestra was being checked out, GiI kept looking at Plaut from the studio to see if any new problems were arising.

"Remember, we want lots of bass," Teo said over his shoulder to Plaut. "And Fred, there's a lot of leakage in the center."

Miles went back in the control booth. "I always manage to put my foot in it," he said of the Spanish experiment. "I always manage to try something I can't do." The statement was mockingly self-deprecating and no one bothered with the logical rebuttal that Miles is able to accomplish exactly" what he sets out to do, and even rarer among jazzmen, he's always clear as to what it is he does want.

''I'm going to call myself on the phone one day," Miles continued, "and tell myself to shut up."

At ten minutes of three, the remaining music parts were passed out. The copyist had been late. What with further checking of equipment, elimination of a crackling noise that suddenly developed on one control room speaker, dry runs with the orchestra, and other complications, it wasn't until half past three that Teo said, "Stand by please" And then stopped. "Alright, who has a radio on in the studio?" he snapped into the microphone. "Please!" he ordered, and the offending French horn player put a transistor radio back in his pocket.

The take began with Miles sitting on a stool; a trio of trumpet, trombone and flute behind him; and Gil directing in the center of the orchestra. Evans conducts with an allmost ballet-like flow of motion. He uses both arms, and keeps the beat going like a firm Poseidon calming troublesome waves. Evans is extremely careful that all the dense textural details and markings for dynamics are performed precisely and are recorded so that all the interweaving parts emerge clearly.

At one point later in the afternoon, Evans cut off one take and said into the microphone, "Are you getting a blending of the three flutes? I only hear one flute out here." Macero assured him that all three were distinctly audible in the control room. Gil went into the booth. heard for himself, and was satisfied.

Miles came in for a sip of vodka. "I can't eat. That's what's wrong with me." After the vodka, he chuckled as he went out, saying, "Me and Buddy Bolden." (The reference was to the first "name" jazz trumpeter; a New Orleans barber with a reputation for high and hard living) .

By four, the shape of the piece was becoming established.

The characteristic, fiercely mournful Spanish melody was a strong one. Evans sketch for Miles looked complex, but Miles seemed to have no difficulty improvising around it. The orchestra's function, as in other Evans scores, was to provide partly a support for and partly a commentary on Davis' solo statements. The range of colors was extensive, and they changed often; sometimes subtly dissolving into slightly different shades and at other times breaking sharpply from ominous cool to brighter blends. By means of more complete instrumentation and varied voicings. Evans gets an unusually full-bodied orchestral sound for jazz from the deep bottoms of the tuba and French horns to high register woodwinds and brass. "These look like flute parts we're playing," lead trumpeter Ernie Royal said during one break, shaking his head in respect and exasperation.

The rhythms were complex and several of the musicians found it hard to keep their time straight. Gil stopped one take as the rhythms became tangled. "The tempo is going to go," he waved his arm in an are, first to the left and then to the right, "this way and that way. Just keep your own time and let the rhythin go." He again made a slow even wave to further illustrate his point.

As more and more takes, most of them fragmentary, were tried, Miles' confidence in his own role grew markedly. He had already demonstrated in his Flamenco Sketches (Kind of Blue, Columbia CL-1355, CS-8163) and Blues For Pablo with Gil Evans (Miles Ahead, Columbia CL-I041), a basic affinity with the Spanish musical temperament and sinuous rhythms. He played as if all by himself, his tone becoming burningly dark in the somber passages and then cutting through with sharper loneliness as the music grew more animated.

In the control room, the visiting Hall Overton, a classical composer who has also been involved in jazz as a pianist and arranger. said, "This is the toughest notation I've ever seen in a jazz arrangement. It could have been written more easily for the players and the result would have been the same, but Gil has to have it exactly the way it happens in the piece. Another thing that makes it tough is that he's using so many different levels. Like the little trio part at the beginning that has to be balanced with Miles on his microphone. Then the three players go back to their places and that makes for another balance problem. And that's just at the beginning. Fortunately. these guys are among the best readers in town. Two of those horn players, Jim Buffington and John Barrows were in New Jersey last night playing a Beethoven sextet for string quartet and two horns."

In the studio, the French horn player had his radio at his ear again. GiI, listening intently to a playback a few feet away, had his ears cupped in his hands, and shook his head. "We lost the beat." Miles meanwhile shouted from the studio into the control room, "Hey, Teo, it doesn't matter how loud those castanets are. It's supposed to be that way." Then Miles bent over, cupping his ears in his hands, and listened.

"This," said trombonist Frank Rehak between taking pictures of Miles and Gil during the playback, "is a tough one. To count at all, you have to count four on every beat."

For the rest of the afternoon, the takes continued to improve. On one, Miles began to play in the lower register with deep feeling and a fuller tone than is usual in his work. "Beautiful," Teo said. "The writing there is allmost Gregorian," he turned to Overton. "It's all diatonic.

"Fred," Teo said quickly, "there'll be big brass after the next little solo if Gil doesn't stop it there." Gil did.

"Ach," said Plaut, "why did he cut it there?"

Gil was back at the piano checking chords with Miles. "This," said Plaut to no one in particular, "will be some splicing job."

"Gil will come up for that," said Teo, "and probably Miles too."

Gil and Miles came in to listen to a playback. "I love that chord," said Miles, "and the end of that section with the flutes way up there. That's all I could hear last night in my sleep. Hey," he turned to Macero, "don't forget take three. That was a good one."

Teo asked Evans if the tympani came in too softly. "I wanted it to be just a whisper," said Evans, "a little cushion of air, something to keep the thing floating. I think it's all right. The tuba is too loud though."

"You know," Miles returned to the conversation, "the melody is so strong there's' nothing you have to do with it. If you tried to play bebop on it, you'd wind up being a hip cornball. The thing I have to do now is make things connect, make them mean something in what I play around it."

"Why don't we do it from the beginning again," said Plaut after Evans and Davis had left the control room.

"No," said Teo, "not unless Gil and Miles want to."

"If you don't do it again," said Plaut, "you'll swear at me afterwards.

"The trumpet was a little weak on bar thirty-three," Teo changed the subject.

A little later, Plaut shook. his head. "I'm still sorry the jazz drums aren't on the left side. Well, anyway, there's no ping pong."

"This will be good stereo," Teo agreed.

"Yes," said Fred with a touch of irony. "We;re playing football now in there,"

By four-thirty, the musicians were a little more than a third of the way through. "There's more confusion in there," said Plaut, "than on a Broadway show recording."

As if in counterpoint to the engineer's comment, Gil announced to the orchestra immediately afterwards, "It's in three flats," and sat at the piano to demonstrate.

"Can you please put that radio away," Teo's voice came into the studio from the control booth. "We're picking it up." The French horn player grimly put the radio away.

The orchestra had now reached the sixty-fifth bar, and from then on it was all new territory for them. At a break, Miles was back in the control room.

"How many copies will this sell" he asked Teo semi-seriously.

"A hundred thousand. I guarantee it,"

"Two!" Miles laughed. "Actually we're making it just to have a record at home we can play for ourselves."

"I think," said Teo, "that's what some of the artists really do."

A few minutes later, a take broke down, and one of the musicians said, "I can't understand those triplets."

"What's to understand?" said Gil. "Play them."

At a few minutes past five, Fred Plaut began taking pictures during a playback. So did the regular Columbia phootographer and a couple of the musicians.

A few more takes were tried, and a few minutes before five-thirty, Teo rushed into the control room. "We're going from the top of the wliole thing." Plaut smiled. "Put on another load of tape," Teo said to Belok, Plaut's assistant.

It was the best one of the afternoon, lasting some twelve minutes, and there was no question now that the piece was going to work. During one passage, Miles played a series of notes that made Evans spin around and smile at him.

"This," said Plaut when the take was over, "is a lifetime project."

"What I like about Columbia," Miles reached for a little more vodka, "is they spare no expense." As often with Miles, it was hard to separate the satire from the seriousness of his comment. "We can have seventeen flutes playing one note-in unison. Right, Teo?"

Miles dropped the playfulness entirely when a visitor asked him abouta recent album: "My records sound so funny to me," Miles grimaced, "once I've made them. I can't hear them anymore. I'm tired of Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess. I'm still on Kind of Blue and Jazz Track though."

Howard Scott of Columbia's classical A&R department entered the control booth. He had a session scheduled with the Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich for that evening, and had to call him to confirm the time. Scott, however, speaks no Russian. He reached the cellist at his hotel, tried French, was relieved to find it worked, and hung up, happy at having confirmed the arrangements for dinner and the recording time.

In the control room, Evans was listening to the last play. back. "Damn! Miles can play beautifully down low." In the studio, the musicians were packing up. It was a few minutes before six. "This," said Gil, back "in the control room, "is where the heroine is crying for the dead bull fighter."

"Really?" said a visitor.

"No," Gil smiled. "it's an old Spanish vamp."

"I would have preferred the drums on the other side," Fred Plaut said to Belok.

"That melody," Miles was still marveling at the piece, "is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets."

"Yes," said Gil, "it's distilled melody. If you lay on it too hard, you don't have it."

"It should take two, maybe three more sessions to finish the album," Teo was speculating.

"When Gil and I start on an album," Miles was relaxing, "we don't know how it's going to wind up. It just goes on out there. Gil," he turned to Evans, "our next record date will be silence."

"You," said Gil, "and your big ideas."

And now you know the story of Sketches Of Spain as it played out.
Amazing post!
So enjoyable to read and relate to. Despite owning this recording (vinyl and then CD) for quite a while, I still play it pretty regularly. I have the 2 disc anniversary edition with additional outtake tracks. This is a classic recording IMO.
Thanks so much for sharing those terrific insights!

I love the album and have both an original six-sye mono and a later stereo release. Embarassed to say that the RSD mono LP, mastered by Kevin Gray from a digital file, leaves them both in the shade. It's great to have choices.
Thanks for the post.
Thanks for sharing the inside story. Very interesting! I can still remember the first time I heard Sketches of Spain on the radio back in the 1960s. I was mesmerized then and still enjoy it today. Like most, I have several vinyl copies with the 6-eye mono and 6-eye stereo being the best sounding.
Thanks for posting this Ferrari. Curious who the original writer might have been (some uncredited studio employee, I'm guessing). Great images from the session. I'm not a Luddite and certainly recognize modern tech can help facilitate recording great music BUT you really have to think about how the old style of recording - the process itself - contributed to the final music. All those people, LIVE! playing together, the on-going, somewhat chaotic creative process enhanced by the various (sometimes conflicting) personalities and ideas. Anyone wonder why modern "product" can sometimes seem a little "sterile"?
This was part of a inter-office memorandum. Most likely done by a Columbia staff writer as we had many of them that wrote a lot of the liner notes for Columbia. Noted that present were also critics from NYT, NYHT, Downbeat, Time and probably some others. Only name that I recognized as to guests was Nat Hentoff but did not show the publication he represented. All would have needed proper credentials to gain access to the studio. For that matter Gil Evans or Teo Macero could have written this as they were under contract to Columbia. Nonetheless a brief glimpse into a time so long ago. With all the faults of the recording process in 1960 and with Stereo just emerging many recordings of this time stand the true test of time.